There is a lot that is praiseworthy about grammar schools, but they also have a lot of problems. Having been to one myself, there is one problem which I believe is particularly pressing: their impact on the mental health of their students. It is undisputed that mental health problems amongst young people are on the rise nationwide –1 in 10 teenagers and over a quarter of women aged between 16 to 24 in the UK are currently suffering with mental health problems. Yet grammar schools in particular often seem to create the kind of environment for such problems to develop- and something needs to be done about it.
This is an issue of particular concern for Cambridge students. Statistically, almost one fifth of us come from grammar schools. This means that there are almost one fifth of us who have not only experienced the grammar school system ourselves, but who probably have friends, families and neighbours who have as well. This means we have seen first-hand the effect that they can have on mental health. For me at least, even though I no longer attend one, I know I feel personally invested in how grammar schools deal with these issues going forward.
The extent of the problem really hit home for me in my last year of school. In the space of a year, my younger sister was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, the 15-year-old brother of a friend took his life, and multiple friends of mine did not sit their A-level exams due to mental health issues. You can be told all the statistics in the world, but nothing really makes you realise how bad a problem has become until it begins to affect the people you know, love and care about.
Grammar schools are, by definition, selective. This means that children find huge amounts of pressure placed upon them from a young age. For many, this begins the process of the equivocation of self-worth with academic success. The jump from typically non-selective primary school environments, where such children were likely to be high-achievers, to an environment where they are no longer anything particularly ‘special’ can cause self-esteem to plummet. Young children fail to contextualise their position; whilst they may be in the top percentile nationwide, the fall from being top of the class to just being ‘average’ is much more immediately obvious to an eleven-year old child. I know that for my sister, the feeling of ‘not being good enough’ and the desire to be ‘the best’ are central to her own struggles with mental health – and this is something she partly attributes to the high-pressure environment of her senior school.
Many private and independent schools have similarly stringent entry criteria which can also place large amounts of pressure on children from a young age. However, these schools have greater resources to combat such problems. Research has indeed found that students at these schools tend to be happier and suffer less with mental health issues than those attending state and grammar schools. In contrast, grammar school budgets have been dramatically cut in recent years. This has arguably worsened the mental health crisis. Almost 60% have been forced to narrow their curriculum, typically leading to a reduction in ‘non-academic’ subjects and extra-curricular activities such as drama, sport, music and art. This serves only to reinforce the idea that academics are all that matters, robbing children of a valuable outlet for any pressure they might be feeling. Secondly, almost 70% have had to reduce staff numbers. This has especially effected support staff and has led to the loss of valuable networks and services that may have existed previously to help in preventing mental illness, providing support for those living with them, and educating students about them.
I am not trying to say that all grammar schools are awful and that every student leaves having had their mental health torn to shreds. Rather, I am trying to raise awareness of an ever-growing problem which has already taken so much from the lives of so many people around me. I think that in order to combat such problems drastic action is needed. The government’s current plans of introducing a ‘mental health lead’ and compulsory mental health education into schools are steps in the right direction. Yet I support my friend, who since the death of his brother has led a campaign to spread awareness about mental illness in young people, in saying that such measures do not go far enough.
At my grammar school, it took the death of a young boy for anyone to realise there was a problem. But the worst shouldn’t have to happen before we start trying to change things. In order to have a future, grammar schools need to act now.